Democratic and Institutional Anxieties

From its ancient provenance, democracy has always provoked anxieties of excess, lawlessness, and spontaneity, and thus also the anxiety of having within itself the disruptive energy to unsettle any stable regime of power (Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Polybius). One characteristic ancient (and modern) way of contending with these anxieties was by conjoining the idea of democracy with that of constitutionalism—that is, of girding democracies to a constitutional form or structure. The idea of such a structure was that it specified “in advance” the principles and the conditions for the production, distribution, and management of political power. Typically, in the modern era, those principles and conditions have included the primacy of law; the separation and hierarchical organization of authority; the specification, and characteristically the centralization, of the locus of decision making; the sanctioning of forms of expert knowledge appropriate to the “management” and “administration” of the polity; and the assertion of some kind of sovereignty and identity as essential aspects of political functioning. The basic idea in this conjunction was that it assuaged the worry that democracy was inherently tilted towards lawlessness, revolution, anarchy, an indifference to organized power, a disregard to giving collective actions a fixed or permanent form with a specified center, a devaluation of the “best men,” or as Polybius put it, an inclination to “the savage rule of violence.”

Despite this long-standing hope of housing democracy within constitutionalism, there is a venerated tradition in canonical political theory from Plato to Jean Bodin in which the incompatibility of democracy and constitutionalism is taken as decisive, and the conjunction itself as fundamentally unstable. In this tradition, democracy in its essential tendency represented a kind of demotic excess, while constitutionalism represented the basic conditionalities of political power and order. Tocqueville, for the most part, shared these anxieties about democracy. He was awed by America precisely because in it, the tensions between majority rule and limitations on power, liberty and law, popular self-expression and order—in brief the tensions between the classical view of democracy and constitutionalism—had been resolved, or rather they operated within a stable orbit and thus gave the idea of a constitutional democracy a practical coherence and viable form. It was, of course, crucial to Tocqueville’s understanding of this coherence that it was not the product of revolutionary upheaval. Instead, the settling of the New World muffled the revolutionary potential of ideas and practices that were laden with such potential in England and Europe. In being “born equal,” which was one of the many blessings to which Americans were heir, they had no need to resort to the ideas with which Europeans were struggling to “become”. Furthermore, beyond even the disavowal of revolutionary ideas, no less a figure than Madison could dismiss the relevance of popular Athenian democracy in a single sentence: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” (The Federalist Papers #55.) Madison’s remark, in part by its implausible excess, is instructive of what was, and is, at issue in firming up the conjunction of democracy and constitutionalism and in not allowing the former term to have any salutary connotations independent of that conjunction. It is precisely this conjunction that strikes me as possibly coming apart in many recent expressions of collective protest in the contemporary world, and to which the term "democratic anxieties" may be applied.

The remark was more than just one of the main ideas which Madison and the Federalists needed to make in their argument for an “extended Republic” with representative institutions that were attentive to the fact of large populations, dispersed geographies, and considerable social complexity. After all, Madison was discrediting the ancient democratic assembly as being no more than a mob, even under conditions where it was organized with concerns about the commons and marked by considerable deliberative solicitude (i.e. where every member was a Socrates). What he was pointing to was the essential and urgent need for popular action to occur only within the channels demarcated by a structure that exists in advance of such actions—that is, a form of politics specifically authorized by a constitutional settlement, which specifies a determinate structure for politics and a space and time in which it must occur.

The hugely influential tradition of constitutional democracy that Madison and his fellow Federalists spawned—especially influential in countries where constitutional traditions were new and fragile—sought to domesticate and stabilize a form of collective and individual behavior in two ways: first, by making it the currency of political legitimacy and thereby giving it political credence, and second, by simultaneously blunting its eruptive potential. This manner of public life was committed to certain forms of expression and action, enclosed within institutional dynamics that normalized the practice of democracy. It professed the importance of stability, order, a methodical ability to respond to changing needs, a flexible mechanism for inclusion and accountability, and the promise of delivering on the demand for justice.

On the other hand, constitutional democracy was, and remains, in many ways suspicious and condemnatory of practices whose form cannot be anticipated either because they are, willfully or by their very nature, episodic, provisional, improvisatory, and indifferent to normal rules of politics and the spaces designated for its exercise. Constitutional democracy is made anxious by demands that fall outside the framework of representation—both when the demand is not articulated within the context of representative channels and when the demand does not represent social groups and classes. Constitutional democracy, notwithstanding its professed championing of the individual, has in many ways relied on the individual as articulating him- or herself as the bearer of a social identity with interests that require the mediation of the state. It is this implicit reliance on social identity (race, ethnicity, caste, and class) and the mediatory role of the state that is often suspended in the contemporary practice of democracy. The Indian government, for example, was plainly flummoxed during the recent anti-corruption agitations by the fact that the movement had no distinctive social, economic, or partisan identity or basis. In representing “every stripe,” the movement—largely inadvertently—challenged the very basis of constitutional and democratic representation. There was a similar puzzlement and initial paralysis in responding to the horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2013. The massive and sustained public response brought together women and men of virtually every social and economic description. By its undefined constituency, intensity, and size, this mass action shattered the presumption of the matter being a “women’s issue” or a threat posed by a large migrant and transient laborer force in Delhi. In a strange way, by refusing to identify a potential victim and perpetrator with specific bodies, the protests following the rape articulated security as an abstract ethical ideal and not as a political value. One might think of this as an ethical Hobbesianism. Even the dispersal of the protests in the subsequent months has only left a curious vacancy—a kind of ethical stigmata—that the political authorities periodically return to with clumsy hesitance.

Similarly, constitutional democracy is unsettled and baffled by public action that makes no demands or offers up no interest to be negotiated within the extant framework of the social and political contract. This was a conspicuous aspect of the puzzlement and anxiety in the face of the Occupy Movement, where the very absence of a demand—indeed the absence, even, of a precise adversary—compounded by the improvisational, evanescent, and leaderless form of life to which the occupation aspired, led to its characterization as a “virus” (Wall Street Journal) with potentially diabolical implications. A virus is an odd metaphor with which to designate something as inescapably obvious as the Occupy movement was. One of the things that plainly informed this anxiety was that there was no clear image corresponding to a normalization of this form of action. How could collective actions that occurred in plain sight—in the shadow of the most iconic marketplace of a self-styled commercial republic, but that, nevertheless, eschewed the framework of legal demands, counterdemands, and the redressing and bartering of individual and group interests—how could such plainly democratic actions get institutionalized into settled practices coalescing around issues of authority, procedures, and the routinization of processes? After all, even Weber, in imagining such possibilities, had to resort to the language of religion and enchantment and not that of radical democracy.

The anxiety (and hope) underlying this question is that of democracy having broken out of the bounds of its constitutional housing. It is a vision of democracy that is inherently and, in some instances, self-consciously unstable, often indifferent and even resistant to its institutionalizations within the legal framework of a polity. It is not clear that it aspires to any fixed form. The linkages that sustain it tend to be horizontal and not hierarchical. It eschews much of the traditional lexicon of political and democratic theory: terms such as law, sovereignty, class, institutions, leaders, parties, and experts. In many instances, there is a blanket disenchantment with politics itself.

Aspirationally, such forms of democratic eruption seem indifferent to articulating a center or a boundary, a friend or an enemy, a citizen and her representative, or a political party and its rival because they are galvanized by various forms of porosity and openness. Those who assembled in Zuccotti Park or Tahrir Square or the numerous “assemblies” all round the world, might very well have embraced the idea of being a mob with the self-knowledge that they could disband and reassemble at will.

Perhaps what underwrites this ideal is the coming to fruition of an abstract idea of freedom and its cognate openness in which the individual is finally and largely divested of social markers. After all, it was these very markers that helped define the political by setting it off from the private and the social. Under such conditions, perhaps even the category of citizen no longer needs to lean as heavily as it did on being a part of a nation with a defined center and a precise mode of organizing power. Liberal democracy, after all, always justified a mode of life that exceeded the nation-state by sanctioning something both smaller and larger than the nation.

Whether democracies can accommodate such forms of disruptive, nonroutinized, epic, and anarchic behavior, or instead whether the abstract ideal of openness and freedom that inspires them will ultimately collapse on itself due to a lack of a supportive scaffolding, is an open and vexing question—one laden with anxiety and promise. But clearly, part of what is at stake is whether we view these anxieties and hopes from a solely political perspective or, instead, from an ethical view, which is in many ways quite discontinuous with our political instincts.

About the Author
Uday Singh Mehta is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at City University of New York, and serves on the Anxieties of Democracy program’s Advisory Committee.